Prepare for a rich and intimate theatrical occurrence of an uncommon kind at the Vineyard Playhouse tonight through September 16. Playhouse artistic associate director Joann Green Breuer has fashioned a unique experience with her staging of Irish dramatist Brian Friel’s 1979 play, “Faith Healer.”
“The play has been done as written often enough,” Ms. Breuer says, “so it was time to look at it a new way — one with integrity and resonance.” No words have been changed, she says, it’s all in the staging.
The three leading actors move among an audience (limited to a maximum of 50) seated at the tables that are arranged in the downstairs reception area of the Playhouse. The room takes on the atmosphere of a pub as one at a time, each character, pausing to make eye contact, prances, staggers, and drifts among the patrons and regales them with the emotional debris of the same story. It is all centers around faith healer Frank Hardy, and most especially, one particular night in an Irish pub. Each version has been made altered by memory, personal perspective, and the need to be redeemed.
When Frank first enters the room, it sounds as if he is speaking in a strange tongue, but what he is reciting is a mantra of the names of Welsh villages — it calms him before his performances. He explains how it is he came to be a faith healer, “a craft without apprenticeship,” and concludes, “I did it because I could do it.”
But he is tormented by his ability that is at best, inconsistent: “Was it chance or illusion,” he says, and admits, “One thing I always knew, drunk or sober, was when nothing was going to happen.”
The burden of the play’s success rests on the power and authenticity of the actors, and Australian actor Paul O’Brien as Frank, British actress Sandra Shipley as Grace, and Irish Classical Theater Company veteran Gerry Maher as Teddy are far more than able for the task.
Frank, played brilliantly by Mr. O’Brien, is wedged between the devotion of his mistress (or is she his wife?), Grace, whose “long but not heady” relationship has “settled on us like a heavy dust,” and his manager Teddy, who Mr. Maher plays to the hilt with wit and nuance. Teddy’s character — who once managed a bagpipe-playing whippet — offers a bit of comedic relief: “Frank has too much brains and it castrated him.” But as he rants drunkenly on, his truths emerge as affecting and relatable.
Grace, nervous and fragile, measures her recovery from a breakdown by how well she’s slept, how little she’s smoked, and how much she’s had to drink. Ms. Shipley delivers a mesmerizing performance of a conflicted woman both repelled by and adoring of an essentially unreachable man. She describes herself as one of Frank’s “successful fictions,” saying, “It was his compulsion to adjust, to recreate…He kept remaking people according to some standard of excellence of his own.”
It was the availability of these actors that motivated Ms. Breuer to mount the production at this time. With her impressive credentials (Harvard acting instructor, directing fellow at the American Repertory Theatre, founder and former artistic director of the Cambridge Ensemble, author of “The Small Theatre Handbook,” and recipient of the Boston Critics’s Circle citation for Continuous Excellence) it is notable that Ms. Breuer has long wanted to take on the play.
“Certainly the issue of faith is timely,” she says. “This is simply about the nature of faith in the way memory and imagination merge into wish fulfillment.” She continues, “It is told with such glorious language — funny, touching, rich. It is a hundred pictures drawn with words. The Irish have a way.”
The words become lyrics, and each actor’s monologue requires attention as the contradictions and inconstancies reveal something essential about his and her character. Ultimately, there is no solution to who did what, who was who, or what happened that night. Audience members must determine the truth of it for themselves. But certainly, “Faith Healer,” a theatrical treat, illuminates our ability to make reality subjective.
“Faith Healer” 7:30 pm, Vineyard Playhouse, Tues.–Sat., Sept. 2 through 16, September 10 and 11, 7 pm. Seating limited to 50. 24 Church Street, Vineyard Haven. 508-696-6300, ext. 21; vineyardplayhouse.org.